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Are Digital Microscopes Good Yet?

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I’ve been looking to buy a microscope that can capture images of small tool edges and features with decent resolution and quality. Here’s the big question I’m looking to have answered – are digital microscopes any good yet?

I last shopped around for a microscope in 2019, and at that time I was discouraged by the poor quality of consumer models and the astronomical prices of professional equipment.

It seemed that there was no middle ground between toy-like mini digital microscopes and professional optical microscopes with pricey cameras attached.

Looking around a bit recently, I found that there are brand new models, some of which look good, at least on paper.

I all but dismissed this category, based on the couple of demos I’ve seen over the years, and so I wasn’t prepared for all of the many new options.

In shopping around, I noticed a few things.

First, there seem to be very few manufacturers. AmScope, shown above, has many different models but from what I have seen only a few have unique-looking designs. To AmScope’s credit, they provide greater details and specs about their scopes than most other brands.

A lot of the other brands I’ve looked at have very appealing marketing materials, but my optimism falls apart when I realize several other imaging brands offer the same or nearly identical product for less.

I’ve also been seeing exaggerated claims.

Andonstar Digital Microscope Claims

Andonstar, for example, boasts that their digital microscope can deliver more than 4000X magnification.

Maybe, if you’re looking at say a 1/64 object on a 65″ TV. But what kind of quality can one expect?

There are plenty of $100 to $150 options, and then features and capabilities vary wildly between $150 and $1500 price points.

I’m looking for something with better image quality than the average webcam.

Some look to offer built-in measurement and annotation features, which I suppose can be nice since I’m loath to deal with software that might not be supported down the road.

I have been looking at the higher end of the spectrum as well.

My goal is to examine things that are incredibly difficult to photograph with a camera – sandpaper grit, knife edges, drill bit wear, screwdriver tip wear – things like that.

Being able to measure features is going to be the difference between consumer and professional models.

OC White Digital Microscope

OC White has an interesting product line, but it doesn’t look like they’ve updated any of their models in a few years.

Leica Empsira 3 Digital Microscope

The Leica Emspira 3 looks fantastic, from what I’ve seen so far, but likely has an industrial-grade price tag.

I’ve requested a pricing quote.

That’s how you know something is going to be extremely expensive, when a company won’t disclose pricing until a salesperson is assigned to talk with you.

Olympus DSX1000 Digital Microscope

The Olympus DSX1000 is likely an order of magnitude greater than what I could reasonably hope to budget for.

Looking at the spectrum, from $100 models to “let’s talk about your needs and budget” industrial and institutional options, it seems to me that the big difference is whether we’re talking about a webcam sensor with Barlow lens or focusing tubes, or an integrated optical and digital microscope system.

Zeiss Visioner 1 Digital Microscope

The Zeiss Visioner 1 looks good too, and has special tech to expand the depth of field. It likely costs more than my car, which puts it out of the realm of imagination.

Amscope DM745 HDMI Digital Microscope

Here’s another AmScope, an HDMI model that can capture images and video to MicroSD cards. It’s under $900.

Depth of field is going to be a challenge for many microscopes, where not much will be in focus unless something is flat. This is partially why most digital microscopes show off circuit board components in their sample images, aside from this being a key target user application. Circuit boards are relatively flat with short components. With good lighting, it’s easy to make them look good.

Something like a Phillips screwdriver tip is going to be a blurry mess. With a standard digital camera, capturing closeups of items with depth often requires focus stacking, where multiple images are taken at slightly different distances and stacked together in software. It’s extremely tedious and impractical.

All of these consumer models, whether $90 or $900, seem limited to very flat objects, such as stamps, coins, and circuit boards with surface-mount components.

ECX bit straight on closeup

I want something that can look at a screwdriver or drill bit tip with full depth of field, and in seconds rather than the many minutes it takes to set up lights for a camera with macro lens. If it can do that, it can examine pliers jaws, punch points and other such things was similar ease.

The image shown here isn’t very good, and takes an inordinate amount of time to capture.

If I could take a better image and in seconds, that would be great.

Measurement features are likely baked into proprietary (read extremely expensive) software. I can do without that if it makes the difference between affordable and “yeah right” pricing.

High Quality Diamond Particles 2000x

Shown here is higher quality diamond abrasive particle that I imaged back in grad school.

Every couple of years, I look at metallurgical microscopes and check benchtop SEM pricing just in case the tech has become affordable for individuals (it hasn’t). I’ve looked at inspection scopes as well, but I haven’t had much need for one without good imaging capabilities.

One brand – Keyence – claims that their latest digital microscope is “delivering images that rival an SEM” thanks to their “optical shadow effect mode.” That might be true, but I’m sure their prices are well out of reach.

There doesn’t seem to be much between consumer models and true digital microscopes at “I’d better skip lunch for 10 years” prices.

Even at the $1000 and up price points, everything I’m seeing short of institutional research and industrial microscopes – but not inspection scopes – are designed around small and flat objects.

That brings me back to the big question. Are digital microscopes good yet?

Or rather, are the affordable ones not too bad?

I feel as though I might be missing something.

And yes, I know this is not a typical tool, but I’m hoping there are enough ToolGuyd readers in industrial or high precision fields who can point me in the right direction.

Plus, in looking into digital microscopes, I’ve seen a number of popular tool-related applications, such as inspecting wood and metal cutters for damage. It might make sense for me to start off with one while I decide whether or not to shelve the idea of a “real” microscope again.

I am eager for any pointers regarding digital microscope brands or tech!

At the higher end of the spectrum, I can think of dozens of ways to use a professional scope for ToolGuyd purposes, but that could just be wishful thinking. The scientist in me likes to be let out.

Before anyone says “just try extension tubes/macro lens/so-and-so phone attachments,” I have tried different techniques over the years and looked into others. There’s a broad spectrum of other things I could try, most of which are expensive, time-consuming, or both.

I’m looking for something I can just turn on and use.

Are digital microscopes good? Which ones? I’ve got ToolGuyd’s credit card at the ready.

Is there reader interest in extreme closeups of tools such as drill bits, screwdriver bits, pliers jaws, tool wear, abrasives, saw teeth, and so forth, on an ongoing basis?